Depending on who you talk to, the size of the 2009-10 California navel orange crop will likely be between 74 million and 80 million cartons.

If it’s 80 million, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service estimates, it would be 16% higher than the 2008-09 crop.

But Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, Exeter, is in the 74-million camp. The organization disputes two decisions made by USDA in its estimate: counting blood oranges and some other niche varieties as navels; and counting as bearing acres non-bearing acres that are transitioning from navels to other varieties.

Subtracting for each of those removes “a few thousand acres” each, Nelsen said, accounting for the lower estimate.

“Those numbers don’t make sense,” he said. “We just don’t see it on the trees.”

This could be the last season, though, he said, in which there is such a discrepancy. Nelsen said he’s confident discussions planned with USDA will yield a more accurate government forecast next year.

Atomic Torosian, managing partner of Crown Jewels Marketing & Distribution LLC, Fresno, predicted the final volume figure would fall somewhere between Nelsen’s 74 million and the 80 million that not only the USDA, but also growers, are forecasting.

Nelsen characterized the upcoming season as a “mixed bag” thus far. In the third week of September, growers were hoping for cooler weather to add color to fruit. The fruit will color eventually, Nelsen said, but at its current pace, the deal could get off to a sluggish start volume-wise.

Growers should be shipping by the first week of November, but likely not in volume.

“Our goal is to have significant volumes by Thanksgiving,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll achieve that.”

Crown Jewels expected to start shipping out of Kern County at the end of October. Wildwood Produce Sales Inc., Kingsburg, Calif., actually plans to start shipping a week earlier than last year, also in late October, said Alex Marriott, sales manager.

On the more positive side of that mixed bag, Nelsen said 2009-2010 is shaping up to be an excellent season for quality and size.

“We should have sweet fruit, that’s for darned sure,” Nelsen said. “Fruit is round, with few blemishes, and it’s on the big side, according to measurements. There will be plenty of 72s and 56s, I would guess.”

Sizing will actually be off an average of one size on navels shipped by Wildwood, Marriott said, but quality was looking good in the latter half of September.

“The weather’s cooperating, and from everything I hear, it’s shaping up to be a good year,” he said.

Also on the plus side, Nelsen looks forward to strong demand in 2009-2010, based in part on the performance of the import citrus deals this summer and early fall.

On Sept. 22, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported prices of $14.48-16.50 for 7/10 bushel cartons of California valencias size 48-56, up from $12.33-14.34 last year at the same time.

“The offshore quality has been very inconsistent,” he said. “We hope that retailers will want to make a rapid transition to the California navel.”

Also, Nelsen said, the “reasonably high” prices late-season California valencias were fetching in September boded well for opening navel markets. Mariottt also predicted strong demand at the beginning of the California deal.

But Torosian said that the availability of navels 12 months out of the year can work against California.

“The newness of having navels starting in October isn’t new anymore,” he said.

In addition, increased production of mandarins, clementines and other specialty citrus further complicates the navel’s market position, he said.

Nevertheless, Torosian said the larger fruit size and aggressive bagged programs should help fruit move this season.